The First Mission to Pharaoh

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
Translated by Kaeren Fish
And afterwards Moshe and Aharon went in and told Pharaoh, “So says the Lord God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast to Me in the wilderness.” And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice, to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.” And they said, “The God of the Hebrews met us; let us go, we pray you, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.” (Shemot 5:1-3)
The demand that Moshe and Aharon present to Pharaoh is comprised of two parts. The first part sounds important and official, as appropriate to a message from the King of kings. They begin by announcing: “So says the Lord (Who is known as the ‘God of Israel’),” and they convey a clear command: “Let My people go!” The second part, in contrast, sounds hesitant and even somewhat apologetic. God is not referred to at the beginning of the verse by His Name, nor even as “he God of Israel,” but rather as “the God of the Hebrews.” The term “Hebrews” (ivrim) is a derogatory term for Am Yisrael among the Egyptians, recalling the instances of its use in Sefer Bereishit:
Then she called to the men of her house, and spoke to them, saying, “See, he has brought in a Hebrew to us to mock us; he came in to me to lie with me…” (Bereishit 39:14)
For the Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, for it is an abomination to Egyptians. (Bereishit 43:32)
The Egyptians refer to Bnei Yisrael as “ivrim,” but in their language there is no difference between “ivrim” and “avadim” (slaves).
The negative connotations of the term “ivri” are manifest elsewhere in Tanakh, as well. “Avram the ivri” (Bereishit 14:13), mentioned in the war of the four kings against the five kings, is Avraham Avinu, who is presented as belonging to no nation or culture. In Sefer Shemuel, the term “ivrim” is used to refer to Bnei Yisrael especially when they are subjugated by the Pelishtim:
Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Pelishtim said, “Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears.” (Shemuel I 13:19)
… And the Pelishtim said, “Behold, the Hebrews have come out of the holes where they had hidden themselves.” (Shemuel I 14:11)
The apologetic tone of the second part of the declaration by Moshe and Aharon is also reflected in its content. The connection with God is presented as coincidental and transient: “The God of the Hebrews met us” – incidentally, as it were. Furthermore, Moshe and Aharon define a distance of three days as the limit of the journey that they propose – a limitation that was not part of God’s original command. In addition, we cannot ignore the motivation that they offer for going to sacrifice to God: “Lest He fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword.” We are inclined to interpret this concern in its plain sense rather than as an expression of honor towards Pharaoh. The sacrifice to the God of Israel flows not from the nation’s spiritual independence, but rather from consideration of exigencies and submission to a threat.
In sum, then, their words convey a tone of apology and justification. The demand, “Let My people go,” is replaced by the request, “Let us go, we pray you,” itself limited to just a few days of freedom. In addition, the reason given for this request is the fear that God might strike them with pestilence and with the sword, such that Pharaoh would lose his loyal slaves.[1]
The gap between the initial command, in all its stately fanfare, and the subsequent apologetic and justifying request is a result of Pharaoh’s decisive and defiant refusal of the former:
And Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice, to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go.”
In the second part of their speech, Moshe and Aharon give the impression that they are taken aback by Pharaoh’s vehement response, and they quickly adjust the style and details of their demand. In the confrontation between them and Pharaoh, it is they who blink first. Pharaoh takes full advantage of this situation:
And the king of Egypt said to them, “Why do you, Moshe and Aharon, distract the people from their work? Get you to your burdens.” And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land now are many, and you make them rest from their burdens.” And Pharaoh the same day commanded the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying, “You shall no more give the people straw to make bricks, as until now; let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the quantity of the bricks, which they made until now, you shall lay upon them; you shall not diminish anything of it, for they are idle; therefore they cry, saying: Let us go and sacrifice to our God. Let more work be laid upon the men, that they may labor in it, and let them not regard vain words.” (Shemot 5:4-9)
Pharaoh’s purpose is neither punishment nor revenge. He seeks, through his command, to isolate Moshe and Aharon from the people, and thereby to cripple the leadership that the nation of slaves is building for itself. Indeed, his strategy meets with success:
And they met Moshe and Aharon, who stood in the way, as they came out from Pharaoh. And they said to them, “The Lord look upon you and judge, for you have made us abhorrent in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants, to put a sword in their hand to slay us.” (Shemot 5:20-21)
Actually, Pharaoh succeeds in more than just distancing the leadership from the people. His policy of “divide and conquer” manages to put up a temporary barrier even between Moshe and God:
And Moshe returned to the Lord, and said, “Lord, why have You dealt badly with this people? Why is it that You have sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this people, neither have You delivered Your people at all.” (Shemot 5:22-23)
Some people might deplore the audacity of criticizing Moshe and Aharon for being cowed by Pharaoh’s response to their very first sentence. To place the matter in the proper perspective, let us consider a different criticism:
And for this Moshe Rabbenu was punished, as it is written, “For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this people.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Alas for those who are lost, the likes of whom are no longer to be found! For how many times did I appear to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov… and they did not question My ways… but now you say to Me, “Neither have You delivered your people at all”?! Now you shall see what I shall do to Pharaoh! The war against Pharaoh you shall see, but the war against the thirty-one kings [the conquest of Eretz Yisrael] you shall not see. (Sanhedrin 111a)
Chazal are sharply critical of Moshe for uttering a complaint to God that reveals his impatience and lack of faith – unlike Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. They go so far as to point to this complaint as the reason for the punishment meted out to Moshe, preventing him from entering the Promised Land forty years later.
Indeed, Moshe’s words may sound impatient and lacking in faith. However, in light of the criticism that we have raised here – that Moshe is momentarily disconcerted and confounded by Pharaoh’s thundering rage – his complaint to God takes on a different significance, with no impatience and no lack of faith. “Why have You dealt badly with this people? Why is it that You have sent me?” might be interpreted to mean, “Master of the world, I told You already at the burning bush that I was unsuited for this difficult mission. Already then I asked that You find someone better equipped for the task. Behold, in front of Pharaoh it has now been demonstrated – after our very first demand to him – that I am unable to carry out this assignment. Why have You dealt badly with this people; why did You send me?”
In other words, Moshe blames himself for the failure of his mission to Pharaoh, rather than expressing impatience or a lack of faith in God. Thus, the overall picture we propose seems more respectful of Moshe than that painted by the midrash.
“Go, therefore, now, and work, for no straw shall be given to you, yet you shall deliver the quantity of bricks.” And the officers of Bnei Yisrael saw that they were badly off (be-ra), after it was said, “You shall not in any way reduce your bricks or your daily task.” (Shemot 5:18-19)
Who was it that the officers viewed as being “badly off”?[2] Rashi explains that they saw their brethren, Bnei Yisrael, persecuted and oppressed by the Egyptians. Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni explain that it was themselves that they viewed as being badly off in view of Pharaoh’s order, since they feared the punishment awaiting them when they would not be able to ensure that Bnei Yisrael would complete their quota of bricks.
Let us propose a different understanding. Perhaps the officers viewed Pharaoh and his advisors, with whom they had just spoken, as being badly off (be-ra). In what sense were they “badly off”?  Ra was the name of the Egyptian sun god,[3] the chief deity in the Egyptian pantheon. This name is alluded to in the Torah in several places, as we shall soon see. The officers of Bnei Yisrael saw that the Egyptian god – i.e., a religious struggle – was being introduced into the dialogue with Pharaoh, and they viewed this as a negative development.
Let us understand this idea. The claim that the officers of Bnei Yisrael brought before Pharaoh made sense both economically and morally. It is illogical to demand of slaves to do something that is beyond their capacity – to now obtain straw independently, while continuing to produce the same daily quota of bricks. Even a master who has no moral sense would not impose measures that would cause harm to his slaves for no purpose.
Until Moshe’s arrival, the argument between the officers and leaders of the people, on one side, and Pharaoh and his advisors, on the other, concerned the economic and socio-moral conditions of the Hebrew slaves. Moshe’s arrival served to shift the confrontation into the religious realm. Threatened by the God of Israel, Pharaoh invokes his gods – Ra first and foremost among them – thus introducing a religious struggle. A religious war has the potential to shatter the few and fragile moral boundaries that may exist as protection in the context of a social battle, as well as steamrolling the economic necessity to maintain the working capacity of the slaves. A religious war overpowers the boundaries of logic and may lead to cruel genocidal schemes “in the name of god.” The officers of Bnei Yisrael detected, in the tone used by Pharaoh and his officers, their fury towards Moshe and Aharon for daring to invoke God. They saw Pharaoh and his advisors “with Ra” – in other words, taking refuge in their god, and in his name and for his honor issuing illogical demands that represented “a sword in their hand to slay us.”
The officers confront Moshe and Aharon as they leave Pharaoh, arguing that they should not have introduced the religious element into the discussion, and accusing them of triggering Pharaoh’s “crusade” against Bnei Yisrael in the form of the decree concerning the straw.
As noted, we encounter other hints to Ra, the Egyptian sun god:
“Look to it, for evil (ra’a) is before you” – This is Ba’al Tzefon. He said to them: My god stands facing your route, and his hand shall be upon you. (Midrash Sekhel Tov, Shemot 10)
“Look to it, for evil is before you” – as Onkelos translates it. And I heard the following midrash aggada: There is a certain star that is called ra’a. Pharaoh said to them: I see through my divining that that star is rising against you in the desert, and it is the symbol of blood and killing. And when Bnei Yisrael sinned with the golden calf, and the Holy One, blessed be He, sought to kill them, Moshe prayed and said, “Why should the Egyptians say: He brought them out for evil (be-ra)?” This is the meaning of what he said to them – “Look to it, for evil is before you.” And immediately thereafter we read, “And God relented of the evil” – turning the blood into the blood of circumcision, when Yehoshua circumcised them. (Rashi, Shemot 10:10)
Rabbi said: “As complainers” (ke-mitonenim ra) – “ra” always means idolatry. As it is written, “for you shall do evil in the eyes of the Lord, to anger Him with your deeds” (Devarim 31:29). (Sifri, Beha’alotekha 85)
The same expression is also used in the context of the sin of the golden calf. Aharon defends himself with the claim, “You know this people, that they are evil (ki be-ra hu)” (Shemot 32:22). The midrash connects this expression with the “mixed multitude” (erev rav) that came out of Egypt together with Bnei Yisrael and influenced them to create a molten god:
“And Aharon said, ‘Let my lord’s anger not burn you know the people, that they are inclined to evil (be-ra hu)’” (Shemot 32:22) – What is the meaning of the expression “be-ra”? He said to him, “I know that the mixed multitude that came up with Am Yisrael out of Egypt influenced them and caused them to make this golden god.” (Pesikta Zutreta [Lekach Tov], Shemot 34.
Building on what we said above, it seems that according to the midrash, the Torah hints to the connection of the erev rav to the Egyptian god Ra. Naturally, the Torah avoids mentioning other gods explicitly, leaving only allusions. However, as we have seen, Chazal expose these allusions time after time.

[1] Admittedly, God had spoken in similar style (Shemot 3:18), but there too the “justification” comes after the fact, only after Moshe starts questioning and evading, and not as part of God’s initial demand.
[2]  I heard the idea presented in this section of the shiur many years ago from my rabbi and teacher, R. Yoel bin Nun.
[3]  Also known as “Amun-Ra,” but appearing in many places in the shortened form – “Ra.”